Music Suite
Bruce Gustafson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 June 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 June 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0072


The French word “suite” derives from “suivre” (“to follow”); thus, it denotes a succession of constituent parts that can be in a specific order or more generally in a group associated with something central. Musically, a suite is a series of distinct instrumental movements or sections with some element of unity, usually intended to be performed as a single unit. The vagueness of this definition stems from the fact that the term has been used for quite different works: from a series of dance-inspired movements in a single key to be played on a harpsichord with a sense of traditional ordering, to excerpts from a 19th-century (or later) opera or ballet to be played as a multisectioned orchestral work. Suite as a genre is more comprehensible if it is subdivided according to performing forces and the element of unity. Thus, one can see a fairly clear development in the Baroque period of the Solo Suite, most frequently for harpsichord or lute, culminating in the hands of composers in the German tradition (the suites of Johann Sebastian Bach have long been cited as the pinnacle) organized around four core dance-inspired movements: allemande, courante, sarabande, and gigue. It should be kept in mind, however, that such suites were often compiled from existing movements either by the composer or by a scribe, and therefore not all suites reflect a compositional concept of a whole multimovement work. The Baroque Orchestral Suite and Chamber Suite, while not always distinguishable from each other, developed in distinctly different ways from the solo suite. In the late 17th century, the popularity of the music of Lully helped create a taste for performing instrumental movements extracted from his operas and ballets as independent works, grouped usually by key, but sometimes according to the parent work. Since such suites naturally began with the overture from an opera, that term was sometimes used as a heading for the whole suite, and newly composed “overture-suites” became a popular genre in the mature Baroque period. Chamber suites of the period were most often in trio texture (two treble lines with basso continuo), but there are such works for larger consorts, which is where the line between orchestral and chamber suites is blurred. Early examples, particularly in England and Germany, sometimes paralleled the solo suite with an allemande-courante-sarabande succession; but the most standardized such genre was in Italy, not using the French name “suite” but called “sonata da camera.” In the Baroque period, “partita” was often used interchangeably with “suite,” particularly in German-speaking regions; in France, François Couperin and a few other composers used the heading “ordre.” As dance-inspired movements gave way to sonata designs in the middle of the 18th century, the solo suite all but disappeared; but in the middle of the 19th century the extract-suite enjoyed a new vogue. In the modern era, composers have tended to use the term in three ways: excerpts from a larger work that are stitched together, a series of movements that are programmatically related (for any medium), or neo-Baroque compositions that usually hark back to the solo suite.

General Overviews

Particularly helpful encyclopedia articles are Fuller 2000 in Grove Music Online, which has become a classic study, particularly for the development from paired dances to the “classic” solo suite ordering in the Baroque era; Beer, et al. 1998 in Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart, for all eras and types; Gustafson 2003 in Harvard Dictionary of Music, for concisely differentiating the separate streams of development of types of suites; and Schipperges 1992 in Handwörterbuch der musikalischen Terminologie, for a broad overview of types of suites. Apel 1972 has much information about early harpsichord suites, although not gathered together; Caldwell 1973 is still very useful for the English harpsichord tradition, as is Nef 1981 (originally published in 1921) for Austro-German suites in the 17th century, especially the orchestral type. Further information is also found in the literature about individual Baroque dance types (see the article “Dance”). On the other hand, the 19th-century suite has received little scholarly attention as a genre; information can be found by searching for the literature on specific works (e.g., the Carmen Suites concocted by Fritz Hoffmann from the music of Georges Bizet’s opera). Pacholczyk 1992 extends the definition of suite to Islamic music, citing mode as the unifying element.

  • Apel, Willi. The History of Keyboard Music to 1700. Translated and revised by Hans Tischler. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1972.

    Revised from the author’s Geschichte der Orgel- und Klavier-musik bis 1700 (1967), it is now a classic study of early harpsichord and organ music. His discussion of harpsichord suites is scattered throughout the book, within treatments of specific composers.

  • Beer, Axel, Tobias Feilen, Andreas Menk, Julia Rosemeyer, Martina Wollner, Christian Hohmann, Camilla Bork, and Astrid Hippchen. “Suite.” In Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart. Sachteil 8. 2d ed. Edited by Friedrich Blume and Ludwig Finscher, 2067–2080. Kassel, Germany: Bärenreiter, 1998.

    Somewhat more detailed on post-Baroque suites than Fuller 2000 in Grove Music Online.

  • Caldwell, John. English Keyboard Music Before the Nineteenth Century. Oxford: Blackwell, 1973.

    Still an excellent introduction to its subject, although the bibliography is now out of date. For the study of the suite it is particularly helpful in inventorying and analyzing the contents of sources.

  • Fuller, David. “Suite.” Grove Music Online. 2000. Edited by Deane Root, et al. Oxford Music Online.

    Originally written for the 1980 edition of The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, it was revised by the author in 2000. It is a masterly history of the genre, from its beginnings in European music through the Baroque period, with more summary treatment of later uses of the term. Available online by subscription.

  • Gustafson, Bruce. “Suite.” In Harvard Dictionary of Music. 4th ed. Edited by Don Michael Randel, 848–850. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003.

    Especially useful for a concise overview of the various ways the term “suite” has been used and for differentiating the traditions of the solo, orchestral, chamber, and extract suites, particularly in the Baroque period. Available online to patrons of subscribing libraries.

  • Nef, Karl. Geschichte der Sinfonie und Suite. Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel, 1981.

    Unaltered reprint of the 1921 original. Reviews the history of the suite, particularly in 17th-century Germany, including the “Ouvertürensuite” (orchestral suite) as it continued to flourish in the 18th century. Still useful as an overview from a German perspective.

  • Pacholczyk, Józef. “Towards a Comparative Study of a Suite Tradition in the Islamic Near East and Central Asia: Kashmir and Morocco.” In Regionale maqām-Traditionen in Geschichte und Gegenwart: Materialien der 2. Arbeitstagung der Study Group “Maqām” des International Council for Traditional Music vom 23. bis 28. März in Gosen bei Berlin. Vol. 2. Edited by Jörgen Elsner and Gisa Jähnichen, 429–463. Berlin: Humboldt-Universität (Institut für Musikwissenschaft und Musikerziehung), 1992.

    Proposes a methodology for the study of a genre such as suite in the large geographic and cultural area of the title. Defines suite as a collection of modally related pieces traditionally performed as a cycle, and further cites linguistic attributes as part of the defining characteristics.

  • Schipperges, Thomas. “Suite.” In Handwörterbuch der musikalischen Terminologie. Edited by Hans Heinrich Eggebrecht, Auslieferung 20, 1–15. Wiesbaden, Germany: Franz Steiner, 1992.

    A schematic overview of the uses of the word “suite,” with citations of specific published examples. Does not attempt detailed descriptions of types of suites, but is useful for noting a wide variety of categories.

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